Ella Mai has turned her transatlantic experience into three lush, confessional, empowering DJ Mustard produced RnB EPs. Inspired by the rawness and honesty of Lauryn Hill, Ella makes sure that every track she writes leaves no questions unasked. Now, people far beyond the West Coast are listening.
Ella grew up in South London and began her foray into the arts as a seven year-old ballet dancer. Her earliest music memories take place in her mum’s car, where both the CD and cassette versions of ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ soundtracked their car rides. Couple that with the endless stream of music Ella encountered at her grandma’s house and you to see the roots of the 22 year-old RnB-star-in-the-making’s passion begin to form.
How does a London girl begin to break in the American music industry, and link up with DJ Mustard? By having a penchant for hard work and a pack of Instagram covers often more sonically interesting than the originals. Ella explains that she and Mustard met in New York, in 2015. “He saw one of my Instagram covers, and at that time I had no situation, I was just singing on Instagram. He saw the cover and told me that he wanted to work with me. He drove down from Philadelphia to do a session. We made three songs that night and he was super excited.”
Though Ella couldn’t imagine signing to his label, from the very first night their creative chemistry was immediately palpable. Compared to a few uncomfortable studio sessions she’s had, “with Mustard, it was so organic and he was asking me what I see for myself in one year and in five years. He was genuinely interested in me and the songs we made, and wanted me to come to LA.”
Mustard’s interest turned into flying Ella back and forth to LA for countless studio sessions. She finds it funny, spending so much time in LA at the end of 2015 and into 2016, but barely seeing any of the city. She happily tells me, “I came here and spent all my time in the studio – being in the studio is my favourite place to be.” Her tireless work ethic was paying off quickly, with her signing announced in January of 2016. She released the first of her three-part EP series, ‘TIME’, that February. Relocating to LA in August of 2016, Ella admits that “it’s been such a quick process, I sometimes forget how quick it actually has been.”
Recalling her first studio session Ella remembers her jitters, “that very first session, I wouldn’t say that I was nervous, but I was apprehensive because I didn’t know what to expect. He didn’t make me feel like I needed to perform, I was super comfortable. That helped me remain calm and make the songs.” Making it clear she can always come to him if she feels stuck during a session, Mustard also gives Ella near-total creative control over her music.
We’re now coming up on her first anniversary of her living in LA. Though Ella’s mentioned that she feels a sense of home working with other UK artists, she’s found herself in Los Angeles as well. Working out of Mustard’s studio has allowed her to meet nearly everyone. Her time on tour with Kehlani had the same effect, with the added bonus that Ella was able to see first hand how well her music connects with her fans.
“Tour was unbelievable! It was my first tour, so I didn’t know what to expect and it was a long tour. As an opener, you don’t really know what you’re going to get from the crowds every night. There wasn’t one show where I didn’t at least captivate some people. Some people knew who I was before the show as well, which I thought was incredible. I know at every single show there were people who didn’t know me before, that were looking up my name while I was on stage.”
“After the show I’d go to the merch table to meet them and take pictures. The stories I got from people, about how I got them through this breakup or that they’re going to search up all my music, were amazing.” In a way, the transition to LA life mirrored her earlier transition from London to Jamaica, Queens. Moving to New York at age twelve, and staying in the states until her high school graduation, Ella learned how to keep her head down and adapt.
“New York was such an eye opener for me. When you asked about my early years in London, I grew up with all the same people. We all went to the same school and lived in the same area. I don’t want to say it was a box, but it was very the same every day. Moving to New York was like being thrown into this pond that was completely different culture-wise. I was unfamiliar with how stuff worked, how to get around, everything. Being in New York helped me realize that there’s more to life than what you do every day and what you’re used to. You have to make the conscious decision to think “I haven’t done this before, but it could help me.”
Though she spent her formidable, soul-searching teen years in New York, she didn’t pursue music while living in Queens: “I shied away from any other reason to make myself stand out. Everyone was obsessed with my accent and the way I talked, so they would ask me to speak all the time. I didn’t want any more attention on myself, because I was in this completely new place.” Ella did make a quick singing debut on graduation day, though, stunning everyone just a month before she moved back home to England. Her five years in New York “were crucial to being able to put together the British culture with the American culture,” allowing Ella to fuse them together adding another layer of personality to her music and blistering storytelling.
Even if fans have a hard time figuring out Ella Mai is a British singer, they’re quickly met with her spoken word interludes, where her accent is front and centre. Ella explains that the interludes serve a dual purpose, “One: I just like to tell a story anyway, even though the music tells a story. The same way the titles help listeners see things my way and their way, that’s what the interludes are also doing. I know those spoken interludes are very relatable, but they’re also there to tell people that I am British. I’m still from London, even if when I sing I don’t sound like it. I want people to know I am from London and I’m proud of it. I’ve had people even ask me who I got to do the interludes and they’re surprised when they find out that it’s just me.”
When it comes to where Ella sees herself going from ‘READY’, a full-length project is on her mind. While “these three EPs have been a strong introduction to who I am, and I don’t think there will be any more EPs,” Ella Mai is looking at putting together a full body of work and going out on the road on her own tour.
This is an extract from Viper’s AW17 NOMAD issue. Buy physical and digital copies via Viper World.
Words by Donna Claire Chesman
Photos by Thursday